8 creators reveal their #1 growth hack
"Content is really just showing up every day and producing something valuable.”
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8 creators reveal their #1 growth hack
I’m not a big fan of the phrase “growth hacking.” To me, it’s a buzzy term that promises a non-existent shortcut to business success. While there are certainly case studies in which entrepreneurs used clever strategies to achieve exponential growth, these cases are largely anecdotal and difficult to replicate. In reality, most success is attributed to a steady grind that generates slow, linear growth.
This is certainly true for media businesses. As Industry Dive founder Sean Griffey put it to me recently, “there is no single magic bullet when it comes to content. I can talk about things that helped us scale, go to market, etc. But content is really just showing up every day and producing something valuable.”
That all being said, I think most content entrepreneurs can look back at the history of their businesses and identify strategic decisions that had an outsized impact. In my podcast interviews with hundreds of media operators, they often described key turning points that propelled them to the next level. In some cases, it involved changes to their content production, whereas others cited the introduction of new revenue streams.
For lack of a better term, we can refer to these strategic decisions as “growth hacks.” This week, I decided to reach out to several successful content entrepreneurs and ask them all variations of the same question:
What is the single biggest change that you made to your content operations that had the greatest impact on growth — either with your business or your audience? I'm specifically looking for some kind of lightbulb idea you had that, when implemented, generated huge results that changed the course of your content business.
The responses I got to this prompt were amazing — so amazing, in fact, that I decided to break them up into two separate newsletters. Let’s jump into the first batch.
We’ll start with Patrick Trousdale, founder of The Daily Upside, a finance-focused newsletter that grew to over 800,000 subscribers:
As a voice-driven newsletter, by far the biggest challenge has been scaling the content team without sacrificing the quality of the newsletter. While I am by no means the strongest business mind, writer, or reporter — the historical Daily Upside (written by me and our first writer) had a very specific voice, one that combined Wall Street color with wit in a conversational and explanatory tone. Finding people who could write in that same way, with the appreciation for brevity and condensation that a newsletter necessitates, was and will remain the biggest challenge and differentiator. Ultimately, hiring experienced people who bring diverse skillsets to the table has been the key unlock. We hired an editor-at-large with an incredible amount of experience, business acumen, and unparalleled language dexterity. We hired reporters with enterprise journalism experience who each bring a tremendous amount of domain knowledge to the table. And we very recently hired an executive editor with a huge amount of Wall Street experience, as well as an incredible voice, who brings the newsletter to life every day.
In making all these hires, we have ultimately leveled-up the content of The Daily Upside far beyond where I ever thought we could take it. Certainly well beyond where it would have gone had it remained just myself. In doing that, it’s a key reason why we now have 800,000 loyal subscribers — we “bring it” every single day and that’s why people sign up. Beyond that, we are building a proper newsroom, moving in a direction of breaking stories and advancing the narrative on the stories we cover. Ultimately, we view that as our core mission.
Jane Friedman, founder of The Hot Sheet, an incredibly influential newsletter within the book publishing industry:
Almost all of the biggest drivers of my success boil down to using email more effectively and building my list more effectively. It's what I imagine to be boring and obvious stuff. Whatever the case, here it is.
Adding a pop-up to my website
My site/blog receives considerable traffic because of a few cornerstone posts on how to get published. I assume many people read, get what answers they need, and never return. It wasn't until I installed a pop-up that I saw meaningful growth on my free email newsletter, Electric Speed.
I became extremely consistent with the free newsletter
About the same time I added that pop-up, I decided I needed to commit to a sending schedule. Up until that point, it was "whenever I felt like it" – which amounted to maybe 6-8 sends per year. I committed to every other week or ~26 sends a year. Consistency is obviously key here, but it also meant I was practicing those newsletter skills more often and learning what worked.
Early on, I allowed people to subscribe to my blog via email
This was eons before Substack arrived. In 2011, I allowed people to sign up to my blog either delivered in full in the body of an email or as a weekly digest. This has protected me greatly from the vagaries of social media and made a huge difference to my everyday reach. (10k receive blog posts via email.)
In 2019, I began a dedicated marketing email
All of my emails from 2010-2019 were editorial with very light promotion that could be easily overlooked. I was basically afraid of doing a pure marketing email that hawked my paid offerings. But then I realized how wrongheaded this was, because of the volume of offerings I have, how few I can mention in my editorial newsletters, and the level of interest people have in these offerings. So I started a marketing-only email that does nothing but alert people to new paid classes (and free, for that matter). It has among the highest open rates and engagement because (of course) people want to know this information. It is a service – and my 2nd biggest email list, with more than 11k subscribers. (Electric Speed, my free send, has about 26k.) It is very hard for others to compete with me on this; I can charge less per class than everyone else, deliver high quality, and get the volume of registrants I need to make it profitable because of my marketing strength.
From a more global standpoint: It wasn't until I dropped one-on-one work (gradually over 2020-2021) that I was able to grow the areas of my business that are scalable: online classes and the paid newsletter. The one-on-one work just sucked all my time away, apart from being stressful and making me tied to my email. I think this is another issue of commitment: until I truly committed to marketing and building the stuff I most cared about, it wasn't going to grow. Often creators spread themselves too thin (out of fear there will not be enough opportunities or money) rather than leveraging their focus (and hopefully excellence) in a single area.
Pat Walls, founder of Starter Story, a startup-focused website that generates 1.4 million views per month:
The biggest change that we made recently was hiring a full-time partnerships/sales role. Someone who could do outreach, pitch and communicate with brands, get on the phone, and close deals.
The impact was massive. We added $20-30k/month in revenue within a couple months, which easily paid for itself. Sales is everything!
Jim Jacob, founder of Kids Short Stories, a podcast that generates over 1 million monthly downloads:
Promoting kids podcasts is challenging for the industry in general. I decided to take an untraditional approach in pursuing a Viral Loop and return to good old [snail] mail. In our two different brands "Spyology Squad" and "Kids Animal Stories,” we talk about how joining the Spy Team or becoming a Critter Protector involves getting a membership badge. They are available for free on the website here and here. We then send the badges in the mail and include "Invite A Friend Cards" that have a QR code that points them to a video of me saying "Hey, your friend thinks you're awesome, and so do I. Welcome to the team! Click here to get your membership badge and start listening to the podcast!"
It's been the most effective dollar spend for us, as $1 (our cost of sending the membership packet) is able to bring us 1-2 new listeners via word-of-mouth.
Josh Spector, founder of For the Interested, a creativity-focused newsletter that has over 25,000 subscribers:
One of the things that’s had the biggest impact on my content and monetization was my decision a couple years ago to expand my newsletter from a weekly newsletter to include a one-paragraph weekday edition as well.
It started as an experiment, but people loved it and it proved my theory that a super short newsletter (I’ve sent issues that were as simple as a single sentence and a link) could do great as long as what you sent was valuable and relevant.
The format also proved to have a huge impact on the engagement and monetization of my newsletter.
I get more clicks on a single link I share in my weekday newsletters than the 10+ links I share in my Sunday issue combined.
The ads I include in my weekday newsletters also see huge engagement and I only include a single one-sentence ad in each issue.
Their performance has allowed me to increase ad rates to $350 per ad and I continue to sell out every issue so it’s helped turn my newsletter ads into about a $90K annual business.
It’s been a game changer.
Emmanuel Saint-Martin, founder of French Morning, a news site geared toward French expats who live in the US:
It happened during and because of the pandemic: 25% of our revenue was coming from airlines. That disappeared all in March 2020, so we had to quickly find new products that would engage other industries. Because everyone was discovering Zoom at the time, we started to organize webinars. The idea was to find topics of interest for our audience of French expats and put together three experts in the field, all paying. The audience has to register to participate, but registration is free.
Before the pandemic we had a business of live, in person, events but had rarely done webinars.
Success was immediate, and [continued] well beyond the pandemic period. It turned out webinars are a great product for our niche market: 1/ Small and medium size advertisers love being put forward as experts in their field. 2/ The engagement of the audience is great; 3/ Advertisers see a great ROI; satisfaction of clients is much higher for this product than for any other product. Some clients (in the investment and wealth management industry) tell us they are able to generate $400k of revenue with just one webinar!
We went from zéro webinars to more than 90 a year, [including] weekly webinars and online ‘conferences’ that are basically a series of webinars gathered in a few days on a specific theme (real estate, bilingual education, study abroad, etc…).
Our weekly webinars schedule is now booked four to six months in advance. We were able to raise the price substantially (X2 since we launched).
The great thing is also that it’s an advertising content product that is loved by our audience as well. As long as you choose topics that are interesting for the audience, people don’t care if it’s sponsored or not. These webinars have become one of the reasons people know our media and then subscribe to our newsletter.
Ryan Johnston, co-founder of 6AM City, which has launched local newsletters in 25 cities:
Nothing earth-shattering. We blend all the top performing earned and paid [content] on a monthly performance report and talk about it as a company. Each of our newsletters has on average 45 links a day. So that is around 1,125 opportunities to see what drives action daily. These learning opportunities are helpful to discuss with everyone on the team so they can incorporate them into who they prospect, how we write content, and what content we include/exclude. Etc.
6AM City also uses what it calls “engagement modules,” which are “an interactive portion of the product that gives readers the opportunity to respond + react to the content they’re reading.”
This way when we ask for additional demographic information from our audience it is something they are used to. These audience insights help us better convince advertising partners to use not only newsletters but leverage the data our audience provides them [indicating] that they are interested in their product offerings. These data points also help drive our overall content inclusion decisions.
We are able to get in front of more advertising opportunities by leading with these audience insights.
Per Grankvist, founder of Vad Vi Vet, one of the most influential explainer journalism companies in Sweden:
Whenever there is a huge story that dominates the news media for a few days or weeks, we will make sure we [explain] what we don't yet know about that story. Because whenever something seems to be unfolding in real-time, there's always a lot of speculation in the media to compensate for us not knowing the full picture and still having a lot of empty editorial space to fill. Experts are being talked to and asked to guess the next step, political pundits offer hot takes, and there's a lot of coverage of the reactions to the main story.
By taking a step back and offering a sober summary of what we do not yet know, we help people navigate the landscape of rumours and speculations that are being amplified in media. At the same time, we come across as reliable, thoughtful and standing out from the rest. As our name implies (Vad Vi Vet means "what we know") we never publish speculations or opinions, only what we know, with links to all of our source material.
During the early weeks of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we gained more followers on our social media accounts than any other media outlet in Sweden. And many of them said this was due to them feeling they could trust us in a time of uncertainty. Our reach went through the roof and we reached more than 10% of the Swedish population of 10M on social media during those weeks.
I should mention that our operated platforms (such as Instagram and Facebook) have a much higher reach than our owned platforms and we consider ourselves to be offering a service rather than offering news. As we don't do display ads on our website, there's no need for us to drive traffic off the platforms. At our core, Vad Vi Vet provides journalism as a service with a focus on evergreen explanatory journalism. Our ambition is to help people learn something new every day through our channels, rather than publishing new stuff all the time.
Ok, that’s all I have for you today. Tune in next week for the next batch of creator growth hacks!
What do you think?
As I mentioned, I’ll be publishing a second batch of creator growth hacks next week, but I want to hear about yours as well. Tell me about the best strategic decision you made to grow your business, and I’ll include the best answers in next week’s newsletter. Leave your answers in the comments section:
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Let's talk about building a successful local news outlet
Over the last few years we’ve seen a veritable boom in local news startups, with media entrepreneurs launching incredibly lean news operations in regions that lost coverage from legacy newspapers.
This Thursday, I’m hosting a live Zoom call where we’ll discuss the best ways to build and monetize a local newsletter, podcast, or blog. You can find the log-in details over here.
A good profile of The American Prospect, a small-but-influential magazine that focuses on progressive policy. [CJR]
I was interviewed on a podcast! I went on to make the case for how Twitter should start sharing revenue with its content creators. [The Addition]
The Ankler is a good example of how a newsletter built around a single writer can then be expanded into a more traditional media company. [Press Gazette] From the article: "Ankler Media now has more than 30,000 newsletter subscribers. With a staff of four, she says the business is profitable and expects it to generate millions of dollars of revenue this year."
I think Paramount (formerly Viacom) is one of the most underrated media companies. It has monster back catalogue from its TV properties — Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, MTV, Vh1, BET, CBS, Showtime — as well as a huge movie studio. [Bloomberg]
Have you tried out Substack’s new chat feature yet?
I think it has a lot of potential, but I’m holding out until there’s a web version I can access through my browser. Right now it’s only available in the iOS app. In the meantime, my main water cooler I hang out in is my private Facebook group. I only promote it at the bottom of my newsletter in order to ensure that the only people who join are media operators like myself. You can join here: [Facebook]
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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at email@example.com. For a full bio, go here.
What a great set of tips, Simon! Thanks for compiling... You have inspired me!
Loved this issue, even though, as an author, Friedman was the only person I knew about (I love her Hot Sheet), I found the variety of strategies fascinating. And I completely agree with not hopping on the chat until they have a web option. I am in my 70s (as are a lot of my followers) and reading the small text on the phone or typing anything lengthy with my arthritic thumbs is a no-go (smile). So if you have any pull on this, do lobby hard for it!